By Dave Downing
Hotels, travel agencies, and even gas stations have national organizations setting guidelines or enforcing industry standards. Not so with car-rental agencies, which remain largely unregulated. Each company has slightly different rules – some won't rent one-way, others won't rent to drivers under 25. But all operate on the same basic principle: Get as much money as possible for each rental.
Though the odds may seem stacked against the customer, you can use this lack of regulation to your advantage if you understand how the rental game is played. To help you out, we've created a list of six steps you can take to make sure you drive away with the best deal, whether you're booking over the phone, on the Web, or in person.
Reservations agents at car-rental companies' national toll-free numbers don't always know what's going on at specific outlets, so always check with the local agency when you arrive, even if you've made a reservation using the toll-free number. Recently, an agent at Budget's toll-free reservations line quoted a weekly rate of $159.99 for a compact car in Orlando, but the local franchise was running an unadvertised special weekly rate of $119 for a Ford Ranger pickup truck. A simple phone call netted a saving of more than $40 – and a sporty pickup instead of a stodgy Taurus sedan.
Check the Web
Online booking sites such as Expedia or Travelocity are a good way to comparison shop. You'll often find better rates than those offered at the individual rental companies' 800 numbers. Recently, the Expedia price for a midsize car from Dollar Rent-a-Car for Sacramento, California, was $164.99 a week. An agent at Dollar's own toll-free number quoted $279.99 – a whopping 40% more for the exact same rental. The price on Dollar's Web site matched Expedia's, so the lesson is clear: always check the Web, even if you think you're being quoted a terrific deal over the phone.
Another online option is to go to a site like Priceline, where you type in how much you want to pay and your bid is either accepted or rejected. (Once you've placed your bid, you'll be charged that amount if the price you've requested is accepted.) Priceline guarantees that your reservation will be with one of five major rental agencies but only reveals which one after your bid is accepted. At Priceline, you're bidding on a daily rate, so you'll have to do some math to compare weekly rates. Some online bidding sites won't allow you to pick up and drop off at different locations, so read the fine print.
Reserve an Economy Car
Major rental agencies generally sell out of "economy" (i.e., the cheapest) cars first. If you're flexible about the type of car you'll drive, make your reservation for an economy car. Why? Because if you arrive and none are left, the agent will upgrade you to whatever vehicle is available, usually for the economy rate.
What if you really don't want the economy car? You can always upgrade on the spot. But keep this in mind: slick rental agents, without telling you they haven't any economy cars (and because of this would upgrade you for free), often try to talk you into the upgrade – and then charge you for it.
Beware Weekly Rates
A national chain recently offered a great weekly rate of $119 for a midsize car, but the promotion had a big catch: The daily rate was $69.99, and the contract's fine print stated that renters had to keep the car a minimum of five days to qualify for the weekly rate. Otherwise, the rate reverted to $69.99 a day. If a customer returned the vehicle after only four days, the charge would be more than double the weekly rate. If you come across a weekly rate like this, make sure you'll be able to keep the car for the duration of the rental, or negotiate a better daily rate before you leave the counter.
Never Buy the Gas
You know the routine: The rental agent asks you whether you want to purchase the gas already in the tank for a "reduced" price or return the car with a full tank. Simple answer: Never, ever buy the gas in the car. The reduced price rental agencies offer is usually within pennies per gallon of the going rate, and unless you coast in with a completely empty gas tank upon return, you wind up paying for gas you don't use. Be sure to return the car with the tank full, though, because the refueling fees are exorbitant.
Avoid the Billion-Dollar Insurance Scam
By some estimates, more than $1 billion is spent on rental-car insurance every year, much of it needlessly. If you have personal car insurance and you are using a major credit card for the rental, chances are you will not need any additional insurance. Likewise, the Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) is a transferal of responsibility that supposedly makes the company, rather than the renter, liable for any damage to the vehicle, but the ambiguous wording and substantial loopholes make it of questionable value.
However, if you don't have personal automobile insurance, there are a few situations for which the LDW might be advisable. Many major credit-card companies – among them American Express – don't extend coverage to high-end luxury cars (such as Jaguars), trucks, or four-wheel drive vehicles of any kind, including many popular sports utility vehicles. Also, the insurance provided by many card companies does not cover damage that occurs out of the state or country in which you rented the car, or on unpaved roads.
Dave Downing writes frequently for Fodor's and Fodors.com and has edited numerous Fodor's guidebooks.